It didn’t take much to exude more parliamentary confidence than Theresa May, or Jeremy Corbyn for that matter. But in a nearly empty Commons, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is looking increasingly weak compared to the new opposition leader, Keir Starmer. In the last two weeks of prime minister’s questions, that weekly ritual of British politics during which MPs grill the man in charge, Johnson has been rambling and repetitive, and Starmer’s cool, forensic cross-examination has caught him denying verifiable facts.
Last week, for instance, when Starmer asked about some 10,000 “unexplained deaths” in British nursing homes, Johnson replied: “No, and it wasn’t that the advice said that. Actually, we brought the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown. And what we’ve seen is a concerted action plan to tackle what has unquestionably been an appalling epidemic in care homes.” Starmer, aware now that he had the prime minister caught, quoted from the government’s advice, dated March 12, that nursing homes were not at great risk. At the last count, 40 percent of U.K. coronavirus deaths have occurred in such homes, a fact that Starmer has argued is attributable to the government’s being “slow into lockdown, slow into testing, slow on tracing, and slow on the supply of PPE.”
During the same session of PMQs, Starmer also asked Johnson why it was that the government had stopped releasing international comparisons of coronavirus deaths at its daily press conferences. Johnson mumbled that doing so was “premature, because the correct and final way of making these comparisons will be when we have all the excess-death totals for all the relevant countries.” But Starmer had a readymade reply: “The problem with the prime minister’s answer is it’s pretty obvious that for seven weeks when we weren’t the highest number in Europe, they [the daily releases] were used for comparison purposes, but as soon as we hit that unenviable place they were dropped.”
Johnson’s struggles with Starmer are undoubtedly exacerbated by an unanticipated knock-on of the pandemic: In the age of social distancing, the loud, rowdy support he could typically count on Conservative backbenchers to provide is gone, replaced by nervous mutterings. One Conservative MP told Politico: “We are in a completely different world now, in terms of the opposition as well as the virus. Starmer is a prosecuting lawyer, and it is going to be the case for the prosecution every week, with Boris as the accused.”
When Johnson won the December general election in a landslide, he did so knowing that many voters had only “lent” him their support. While visiting Sedgefield, which has long been thought of as a Labour constituency, he promised voters, “We’re going to recover our national self-confidence, our mojo, our self-belief.” But the coronavirus that briefly placed him in hospital now threatens his political fortunes as well. Recent polling by Opinium shows that only 39 percent of voters approve of his handling of the pandemic, while 42 percent disapprove. Another poll, conducted by YouGov for Sky News, shows that 49 percent of U.K. citizens say the government is managing the pandemic “badly,” compared to 47 percent who say it is doing so “well.”
Before he was elected as leader of the Labour Party, Starmer promised to “pursue Boris Johnson relentlessly.” He is a man of his word. So far, his moderate, persuasive leadership during the pandemic has appeared compelling, and carried with it the ring of competence. That he has a left-wing policy agenda for everything else — in his own words, he aims “to deliver a program that will tackle low pay and insecure work, rebuild our public services, empower communities and tackle the climate emergency” — may not look so unattractive to a British public steeling itself for an unprecedented global recession. Johnson learned during the years-long Brexit quagmire that it was far easier to make his case while outside government — far easier to criticize one’s opponents, offering a better tomorrow, than to take such criticism and deliver better results today. Starmer seems to have learned the same lesson, and the prime minister should be worried.